Mali hostage drama a moral catch-22

A video featuring Stephen McGown, a South African hostage in Mali, was released on YouTube last week and is spine chilling in its clarity. The interview of McGown and Swedish hostage Johan Gustafson, choreographed by a balaclava-wearing jihadist, was screened on television in South Africa and around the world.

McGown and Gustafson are shown greeting their families and pleading with their respective governments to intervene. ‘I have a message for my government. I thank you for everything you have been doing and I continue to ask for your help that you assist in my release,’ says McGown, who was captured in a restaurant in Timbuktu along with Gustafson and Dutch national Sjaak Rijke, while on a motorcycle trip across Africa. Rijke was released during a raid by French special forces in northern Mali in April this year.

The video was both a feat of propaganda for the Islamic militants who have held the hostages since November 2011, but it offers some comfort to family and friends of the two men. Many have asked why the South African government is keeping mum over McGown’s fate. The relatively scarce media attention to his case has also come under scrutiny. Other kidnappings, especially of French nationals, remain headline news in their home countries for weeks and even months.

There is increasing pressure on governments to avoid negotiating with terror groups

Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says the South African government’s silence on the matter is not surprising given the sensitivity of the case. ‘Most governments will not release information about their citizens being held by terrorist groups, particularly not about strategies that they are pursuing, because of the risk for the hostage,’ he says.

Like other states that receive ransom demands from terrorist groups, the South African government faces a moral dilemma, Ewi says. It has to choose whether to negotiate with the terror groups, or instead to follow international guidelines and refrain from paying ransom.

Increasingly there is international pressure on governments to avoid negotiating with terror groups. It is well known that organisations such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram finance their operations with ransom money: huge sums obtained for releasing hostages kidnapped in West Africa and the Sahel.

The African Union, meanwhile, has indicated in several Assembly and Peace and Security Council decisions that member states are advised not to pay ransom for hostages. According to Ewi, the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum also adopted the Algiers Memorandum in April 2012, which contains guidelines on how states could prevent kidnappings. Measures include providing citizens with up-to-date travel advisories, as well as ways to ensure their personal security. States are also advised to deny terrorists the benefit of kidnapping for ransom, while at the same time seeking to secure the safe release of hostages through diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and other means.

Extremist groups use the huge sums obtained for ransom to finance terror operations

This doesn’t mean, however, that other organisations should be excluded from assisting or acting as intermediaries, Ewi says. ‘If NGOs [non-governmental organisations] or companies get involved, the [South African] government won’t stop it, but they could warn them not to pay ransom. The government will not deny the family the right to search for other mediators,’ says Ewi.

Last week, South African charity organisation Gift of the Givers said the McGown family had asked for assistance in contacting their son. The organisation had agreed to try and help them. Gift of the Givers was instrumental in the release of South African hostage Yolande Korkie from Yemen in February last year. Her husband, Pierre, however died in a botched American rescue operation in December.

Most of the hostages captured in the Sahel have been French, and France has been accused of paying ransom or agreeing to prisoner exchanges on several occasions. In April 2013, for example, Boko Haram released a French family who they’d taken hostage in Cameroon. The kidnappers later said they were paid several million dollars for this release. French media also reported that a prisoner exchange took place for the hostages to be released.

At the end of last year, there was an outcry in Mali after French hostage Serge Lazarevic was released – also thanks to a prisoner exchange. Some Malians objected to convicted criminals being released in exchange for a French hostage. In the latest video showing McGown and Gustafson, the kidnappers claim that seven ‘mujahideen’ had been released from prisons in Mali and Niger in order to ensure the release of Lazarevic, who was also captured in November 2011. The earlier release of four other French hostages, in October 2013, was also allegedly gained through ransom payments, although French authorities deny this.

French media and support groups kept the plight of the hostages alive

Ahead of the French hostages' release, media and local support groups kept the plight of the hostages alive through frequent mass gatherings, media interviews and public calls on the French government to intervene. The international channel TV5 Monde, for example, ended its daily news coverage with a reference to the hostages in Mali for several months. Why has the same not happened in South Africa?

In South Africa, media exposure of the McGown case has been influenced by two factors. Initially, international media reports labelled him as a British hostage. He had obtained a British passport just before his return to South Africa – the fateful journey by road when he was captured. In addition, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation had urged the family not to speak to the media in order to allow for behind-the-scenes processes to go ahead. This is standard procedure in most hostage situations worldwide. While frustrating for the family, they largely complied with this request.

Recent events have, however, shone the media spotlight on McGown’s fate. The spectacular release of Rijke in early April prompted McGown’s family to speak out about their son, and to once again call for everything possible to be done for him to be released. The latest video of McGown has now added to this renewed attention to his case.

While the government struggles with an ethical catch-22, the media also face a quandary: some hostage negotiators argue convincingly that too much attention might jeopardise the case. Is it playing into the hands of the al-Qaeda propagandists to even distribute the video, already released on YouTube? (Since its release on 21 June, the 18-minute video has been deleted from some news websites, but clips are still available online.) Or is it a good way of maintaining pressure on whoever is trying to intervene behind the scenes? Both for the government and for the media, there is no clear way out of this almost impossible moral dilemma.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant